Monday, February 28, 2011

An odour as irresistible as it is odious (and one of the cinema's great portraits of New York): Sweet Smell of Success

A stack of newsprint smacks down on pavement, bound, tossed off a truck, like a kidnapping victim, in synch with the final pow! of Elmer Bernstein’s hysterical jazz aria, and we’re off to troll two bracing mid-fifties Manhattan nights. New from Criterion,
Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick and scripted by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, is one of the great New York movies, with relentlessly imaginative location photography by the legendary James Wong Howe. It’s riddled with razor-sharp dialogue (“The cat’s out of the bag and the bag’s in the river”). There’s an edge of seething violence, most of it coming through language and music. It’s a mercilessly cynical story where everybody’s stepping on everybody to get to the top of something. But that mercilessness has its costs.

We follow Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent hanging by a thread. He leaves his topcoat in the office to save on coat checks. It’s unclear if he sleeps or ever finishes a hot dog. At least he has more than one suit: in a beautifully composed early scene the frame’s divided by a door, on one side Falco changes his pants, on the other his secretary lingers with concern. Falco’s frantic to suck up to J.J. Hunsecker (co-producer Burt Lancaster), the towering columnist who can make or break anybody, who can save Falco from ruin with a sentence about a client in the evening edition. Hunsecker has a sister named Suzie (Susan Harrison) who’s in love with a guitar player. She could be in love with a monk for all he cares. He wants her for himself, though for what purpose it’s ambiguous (if unambiguously repulsive). He assigns Falco the task of destroying the romance. Everything hinges on that.

Curtis is brilliant, nervous yet intensely focused, a dog that can bark and plead in the same sentence, twisting himself into pretzels to work magic, seated, in a key scene, just behind Lancaster as though perched at the heels of his master—or moments away from pushing him off his pedestal. Something in Curtis’ performance looks forward to Ray Liotta in
Goodfellas (90). His Falco starts with his soul already sullied, yet as his actions become more appalling we can’t help holding out for his return to sanity, though the bit where he pimps out the cigarette girl is tough to get past. Of course, we keep watching, riveted to the bitter end, even if by that point the artifice is showing.

The only true innocent in
Sweet Smell is, of all people, a (white) jazz musician. Suzie, psychologically frail, shivering in her furs, is ostensibly innocent too, though with Hunsecker as her brother, and a final twist revealing her capacity for manipulation, we have to presume something seedy deep within. Anyway I can go along with these ingénues, but there’s something about Hunsecker I confess I never completely believe—though he’s precisely the sort of symbol of corruption and power Odets seemed to need to believe in.

Hunsecker’s based on real-life gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was unhealthily obsessed with his daughter rather than his sister (which might explain why Suzie’s less than half her brother’s age). Hunsecker’s basis in Winchell inevitably recalls
Citizen Kane (41) and Kane’s basis in real-life media titan William Randolph Hearst. We he cast in the role, Orson Welles surely would have identified with Hunsecker, smiled a little, had some fun, and for moments make us want to be Hunsecker, however uneasy the thought. Though rigidly compelling, Lancaster by contrast seems no fun at all. His contempt for Hunsecker’s all too clear. He seems uninterested in conveying much inner life, save a few moments involving Suzie, like that glance he casts through a crack in the curtains while she sleeps.

Turns out Welles was actually Lehman’s first choice to play Hunsecker, something I learned from the audio commentary by author James Naremore (whose
More Than Night is one of the strongest books on film noir). The highlight of Criterion’s superb supplements, Naremore’s is a model commentary track. Without ever snowing us, he moves nimbly between historical context, production anecdotes, technical data and performance analysis, outlines which writer was responsible for what, and draws attention to so many subtle and terrific little bits of behaviour.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Voice Imitator: 104 opportunities to encounter Thomas Bernhard in one page or less

I have recently endeavoured to compel fellow readers to explore the works of the late Austrian novelist, playwright and poet Thomas Bernhard, whose novels I have only recently begun to explore and whose plays and poems I hope to explore imminently, yet I have been reminded over the course of this endeavour that it may prove difficult to compel fellow readers to explore the works of Thomas Bernhard due to their (in)famous prose style, distinguished by very long sentences that seem to ramble, mesmerize and merely repeat themselves while they are in fact building a seductive and compelling rhythm and tension and secretly working to reward the reader with the utmost narrative clarity and an arresting sense of voice. My endeavour has been aided by the recent reprinting of many Bernhard’s novels, such as
The Loser, about suicide, genius, and Glenn Gould, and Correction, about suicide, genius, and a cone-shaped edifice, by the recently published Prose, and by the even more recently published My Prizes: An Accounting, though none of these has filled me with as much hope of compelling fellow readers to explore the works of Thomas Bernhard, despite their very long sentences that seem to ramble, mesmerize and merely repeat themselves, as The Voice Imitator (University of Chicago Press, $12 US), whose darkly comical, anecdote-like stories, about suicide, murder, accidents, governments, and generally peculiar behaviour, are so short as to never exceed a page’s length and thus diminish the potentially off-putting effect of those very long sentences that seem to ramble, mesmerize and merely repeat themselves. There is additionally something ironic about a work from Thomas Bernhard being called The Voice Imitator since I can think of few other late 20th century writers whose writerly voice has been more closely imitated or, as it were, paid homage, by writers whose work I’d already come to adore, such as W.G. Sebald, Geoff Dyer, and Horacio Castellanos Moya, who have done such inspired work of imitating or, as it were, paying homage to Thomas Bernhard’s writerly voice that I will with this sentence cease my own pale imitation or, as it were, homage, to the writerly voice of Thomas Bernhard.

Bernhard’s micro-fictions are often founded in personal experiences, often shared with a small group of anonymous friends. He seems attracted to precisely those strangers who go out of their way not to attract attention—twice in
The Voice Imitator a story begins when Bernhard and his companions become fascinated by a solitary figure in a tavern made conspicuous by his “taciturnity.” Just as often, Bernhard’s stories seem culled from truncated news reports or hearsay: the lavish mountainside hotel abandoned by its grieving owner and left to the elements having never once been occupied; the fortune teller murdered for failing to provide a philanderer with an accurate prophecy of his wife’s death; the postman consigned to an insane asylum who asks that he be able to continue wearing his postman’s uniform so as to not go insane; the discovery of a giant skeleton in a village always thought to be inhabited solely by very short people; the fireman who pulled away a safety blanket just as a suicidal jumper jumped because he was overtaken by “an inner compulsion.”

Bernhard seems drawn to these stories for their grave ironies and subtle insights, though so often it’s difficult to discern what’s based on fact and what is pure invention. Not that it matters.
The Voice Imitator is filled with deliciously unqualified generalizations and assumptions. In ‘Genius’ Bernhard writes that in Vienna, “lack of consideration and impudence towards thinkers and artists has always been greater than anywhere else.” If Bernhard’s legendary loathing of his home country renders such a claim highly suspicious it in no way diminishes its power to evoke a singular psychological landscape. Characteristically, these stories keep circling themes of suicide and despair, but they also return again and again to tales of unlikely connections between people. With any luck, The Voice Imitator might even forge new connections between Bernhard and those readers willing to give this extraordinary author a chance.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Of Gods and Men: the limits of brotherly love

We know that Xavier Beauvois’ Cannes Grand Prize-winner
Of Gods and Men was drawn from the 1996 incident in which seven Tibhirine Trappist monks were kidnapped and eventually beheaded during the Algerian Civil War, the exact circumstances of their slaughter a matter of controversy and contention to this day. So we might expect something draped in dread to unfold here, a drama whose hopeless fluctuations amount to nothing more than a death march. But inevitability is a force one strives to come to terms with when one’s life is devoted to worship and public service. That things are bound to end poorly becomes a matter of secondary importance once Beauvois and his collaborators usher us into this realm of carefully nurtured quietude, where disparate, overwhelming inner struggles are conducted and resolve terribly hard-won, where fraternal bonds are largely strengthened as much through disagreement and prolonged panic as they are through a sense of harmony and shared ideals. This is indeed a meditative movie (how could it be otherwise?), yet also at times a joyous one, one that reminds us of several important things: that running away only brings new things to run from; that need, vocation, and genuine communion transcends the confines of dogma; and that god (or God), whether regarded as a concept or a true presence, is only alive when his followers engage fully with the world in all its disorder.

Written by Beauvois and Etienne Comar, and photographed with a loving (and necessary) bias toward natural light by Caroline Champetier,
Of Gods and Men pulls us in by immersing us in the monks’ daily activities, especially those of the abbot Christian (Lambert Wilson), an Islamic scholar who has the magnificent nerve to quote the Koran to Muslim terrorists threatening his life, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a trained physician who administers humble remedies (not to mention shoes) to the local, largely impoverished Algerian population. As the threat of uprising prompts government officials to plead with that monks to flee and the townsfolk to plead for their steadfastness, each of the monks are forced to make their cases for staying or going, the disagreements causing considerable tension that seems only to abate when the group joins in song, their roster of Gregorian chants emerging as one of the film’s most fortifying refrains, the other being Beauvois’ dogged use of lingering close-ups to glean some sense of the monks’ individual inner turmoil, which emerges as diverse and resonant. Luc, who is not the eldest among the monks but whose health is poor, seems to be the only one who knows from the start what his choice is. “I’m not scared of death,” he says. “I’m a free man.”

It’s serendipitous that
Of Gods and Men should arrive in theatres while Claire Denis’ White Material still lingers in the memories of many moviegoers (at least in the US; here in Canada the film has yet to enjoy a well-deserved release). Both concern the legacy of French colonialism as it effects those attempting to make a life for themselves in those countries afflicted, but the contrast is fascinating. Denis’ mise en scène is narcotic in its way, but also secular, dark, fierce and brutal, where Beauvois’ approach centers on the serene and a universal, non-denominational sense of religious feeling, even when the grotesque looms just outside the monastery gates. It’s a gift to have both these visions circulating through our collective consciousness, helping us to reflect on the complexity of global ruptures, and those ghosts from the past that continue to haunt us.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Getting lost doesn't help creativity at all": Javier Bardem and Alejandro González Iñárritu on their Biutiful collaboration

“The movie is like a Francis Bacon painting,” Javier Bardem says when asked to characterize
Biutiful, the film in which he portrays a dying man who communicates with the recently dead while moving through a crime-ridden contemporary Barcelona that itself resembles some outer circle of the inferno. “Some people can take it. Some can’t. Some people can look at the surface and then go deeper to see the love beneath, the compassion that’s woven into the horror of life.”


Biutiful is the fourth feature from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Following his alternately acclaimed and denounced tripartite, “globalized” drama Babel, Biutiful is most closely related in ontological terms to González Iñárritu’s second feature 21 Grams. It’s his first movie in his native Spanish since his exhilarating multi-narrative debut Amores Perros. It’s also the first he’s made without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. When González Iñárritu and Arriaga inamicably parted ways after fighting over credits for Babel, I wondered if their individual subsequent films would indicate which of them was responsible for the heavy-handedness and dependency on dramatic irony that increasingly plagued their collaborations. But both Biutiful and Arriaga’s recent directorial debut The Burning Plain make clear that the tendency was mutual. There are numerous moments in Biutiful that possess a certain penetrating eloquence, but they’re set within an at times oppressive framework far too eager to declare its self-importance, too proud of its fitfully successful attempts to say something meaningful about “the world we live in” generally, and the world of illegal migrant laborers specifically.

What makes Biutiful essential viewing then isn’t its socially burdened narrative or its ostentatious, immaculately crafted mise en scène—it’s Bardem’s impossibly rich, marathon central performance, and the way that performance is nurtured and heightened by González Iñárritu's precision approach. The shoot took place over five months, and as we watch Bardem’s flawed hero, Uxbal, wither away from the cancer that’s rapidly consuming him, while frantically trying to leave his children in the best possible position to continue in his absence, we’re watching a performance so immersive, so exhaustive, so rife with resonant contradictions, that by the end we can’t but feel we know this man somehow. We know he’s sick when the other characters don’t. We know his fateful errors in judgment and his efforts to do good. We witness his conferences with the dead, though Bardem never plays the supernatural bits any differently than the ones where he’s collecting money or feeding his kids. Uxbal clings to life while desperately maintaining some essential dignity, and when he’s finally forced to let go the loss is almost palpable in a way that the movie’s poetic intimations of an afterlife can’t diminish.

González Iñárritu and Bardem were promoting Biutiful during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. We meet them in hotel rooms, separately, as though we’re interrogating them, hoping to pit one against the other in a ploy to get good copy. But despite the fact that the more divisive aspects of Biutiful could be regarded as representing a battle between Bardem’s deeply felt movie and González Iñárritu’s somewhat forced one, between an Oscar-nominated performance viewers are inclined to surrender to and a ruthlessly sculpted directorial vision some will be annoyed by, both artists make clear from the get-go that Biutiful is the result of a much-desired alliance. Bardem wanted to work with González Iñárritu, particularly for the way he works with actors, and González Iñárritu wanted to work with Bardem. The role of Uxbal, father to two children, husband to a woman suffering flamboyantly from bipolar disorder, and a sort of managerial figure for numerous underworld enterprises, was based to some extent on González Iñárritu’s own father, but written specifically for Bardem to interpret.

“Javier’s physically very strong,” explains González Iñárritu, “but, after having known him for eight or nine years, I know how delicate and sensitive he is on the inside. This Minotaur’s face of his envelops a poet’s soul. It’s a strange combination that attaches itself nicely to Uxbal, who’s a tough guy, a street guy, but at bottom is a vulnerable, sophisticated spirit. Primitive culturally, but spiritually sophisticated.”

When told about González Iñárritu’s assessment of his persona, Bardem considers this for a moment. “Tough on the outside and tender on the inside…” he says. “Like a melon!” We all laugh. “Melon Brando!” he then quips, and we laugh even harder. He immediately apologizes for the bad pun, but his ease and warmth loosens up the whole room. Bardem draws a curtain, pours himself some water, sits with us, rather than before us. He seems happy and relaxed, yet he’s frank with regards to the movie’s bleakness.

“Alejandro told me from the beginning that this was a tragedy,” says Bardem. “Like a Greek tragedy, where the gods enter the story in order to remind human beings how weak they are, how much help they need, and how little help they’re going to provide, because they have to learn by themselves.”

We discuss González Iñárritu’s infamous perfectionism, his habit of doing dozens of takes for every camera set-up. Bardem claims that while this approach can be draining it always led him to the best results. I tell Bardem that for all the scenes of intense drama, for me the most memorable was one where Uxbal openly confesses his terminal illness to a complete stranger in a noisy nightclub. The scene is moving because, in a sense, Bardem seems to just throw the line away, making nothing of it. Bardem, whose performances in
Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside have already made him an old hand at on-screen death, points out however that even that scene was the product of countless takes and varying approaches. His performance only appears casual. But Bardem also acknowledges the importance of balancing lightness and weight when telling a story such as this, and credits his junior costars with helping him to map out his character’s degrees of gravity, as well as shake it all off when the workday is over.

“Alejandro didn’t want the kids to feel they were witnessing something real, something they’re going to bring home with them,” Bardem explains. “Everything was a game. Those kids would play their emotions and when he says cut they’d go back to their toys and do goofy things. That’s the way it has to be. You have to learn to detach yourself from the material at some points or you get lost in your own thing, and getting lost doesn’t help creativity at all. Some days were harder than others, but through the kids I learned how to go back to the days when I’d be playing a galaxy warrior one moment and then have to go home or off to class the next. I didn’t have to say to myself, ‘Hold on, I was just a galaxy warrior, how am I going to focus on the mathematics now?’ No. You jump. That’s what it’s all about. Be there, experience what you have to experience, but leave a little room in your brain where you tell yourself this is fiction.”

Death looms over every scene of Biutiful. It comes for Uxbal and it comes for many other characters too, especially those surviving on the fringes of the society. Death is finally the central theme of Biutiful: how to accept it, to prepare for it, to reconcile oneself to its mysteries—though it’s slightly less mysterious for the likes of Uxbal than it is for most of us. We see Uxbal in a wintry forest, a place resembling this world yet clearly not of it, a place where he meets someone from his past, someone long gone. Uxbal’s connection to an afterlife is no mere fantastic construct for González Iñárritu. It’s inspired by the director’s own experience with people who he feels possess a genuine ability to see things most of us don’t, things hidden from the established senses. As González Iñárritu sits perched on his chair, trying to come to terms with our questions about what drove him to make Biutiful, there’s an undeniable feeling that his encounters with such people humbled him, and are meant to endow the work not with despair but rather with a sense of wonder.

“The character of Uxbal’s spiritual advisor, or mentor, was based on a woman I met in a very rundown neighbourhood in Mexico City,” González Iñárritu explains. “It was cold out, and I was wearing all these layers, these sweaters and coats and scarves, so you couldn’t see any part of my body below my face, and yet this woman immediately knew that I’d recently had surgery. She didn’t make a big deal about it. She just asked me how I was recovering. These people, it’s not like they’re trying to see something—they just know it. It’s a gift. They don’t want you to pay them. It’s a kind of burden they carry. The good news, or maybe bad news, is that all of them say that death is not the end. On the contrary, it’s just the beginning of a long and fucking hard road.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the mercilessly relentless marvels of Koji Yamamura's animated shorts, now on DVD

It’s deep winter, and the old doctor’s horse lies dead in the snow. His assistant goes door to door asking neighbours to lend out their horse so that the doctor can make the ten-mile journey to call on a sick child, but it’s only when the doctor decides on a whim to investigate the contents of his own forgotten pig stall that he finds transportation. Led by a mischievous stable hand, two enormous black horses with ivory marbles for eyes squeeze out of the cramped stall like newborns spilling from a womb. You never know what you’ll find on your own property, the assistant, soon to become the stable hand’s potential rape victim, exclaims, and the doctor is on his way to an apparently healthy patient that politely requests that he be allowed to die and a mass of villagers that seem to be conspiring against the doctor for reasons unknown. They take off all his clothes and stuff him into bed with the peculiar boy now in his care.

The titular 20-minute animated film that constitutes the centerpiece of
Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor & Other Fantastic Films by Koji Yamamura is an extremely faithful, which is to say oddly literal, adaptation. It diligently realizes each and every event relayed in Kafka’s seven-page story through colour-deprived images of figures whose limbs and heads balloon randomly as they move about and a first-person narration read by not one but two voices, evoking demonic possession. The doctor’s facial expression and body language do little to enhance our understanding of the character however. Yamamura seems content to illustrate Kafka’s strange tale in a distinctively dreamlike, compelling style and leave it at that, which seems perplexing when you compare ‘A Country Doctor’ (2007) to the bulk of the 13 films in Zeitgeist’s collection, which are nothing if not restlessly imaginative, so much so that watching just a few in a row can prove a tiresome experience.

The multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated ‘Mt. Head’ (2002) is probably the most well known of the films here. It tells the story of an old miser who eats so many cherry pits that a cherry tree sprouts from his head and becomes a beloved gathering place for families and weekend warriors. It’s a clever, enjoyable, slightly spooky piece, though like most of the more recent films seems less characteristic of Yamamura’s work as a whole. The early ‘Aquatic’ (1987) finds a young Narcissus studying his reflection in a river until his reflection reveals a bizarre sea creature to be staring back. The water’s surface and the sky above become interchangeable. Amorphous life forms constantly come into being. The result is an essentially formless mediation in fluidity and visual depth that just sort of grooves along until it doesn’t anymore. In the more urban-themed ‘Perspektivenbox’ (1989) the parade of imagery seems to finally end for no other reason than it eventually gets dark outside.

In ‘Your Choice!’ (1999), made in collaboration with students in the US and Japan, a barber with a half-moon head seeks a light bulb. In ‘Bavel’s Book’ (1996) two kids find a book at a bus stop that transports them to another realm. In ‘Child’s Metaphysics’ (2007) a boy sneezes, blowing out his candle nose, while a literal birdbrain hovers trapped within a skull cage. The author of these works is clearly some kind of a genius. No ten seconds of screen-time in any of Yamamura’s films are anything less than inventive—the only problem is that so little of it adds up to very much, so sometimes ten seconds feels like enough. So in a sense, you might say that
A Country Doctor & Other Fantastic Films, or at least the earlier works that constitute the bulk of the collection, makes ideal viewing for people with extreme short-term memory loss. There’s always something new!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune: Talkin' heads remember unjustly forgotten singer-songwriter who sang 'bout injustice blues

Phil Ochs went to New York in 1962 to become the world’s greatest songwriter, but he met Bob Dylan and thereafter amended his ambition: he’d settle for second greatest. Dylan, who unfortunately does not appear in Kenneth Bowser’s
Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, was reportedly unkind to Ochs, despite a friendship that would last until Ochs’ death in 1976. Yet Dylan’s advice to Ochs, his insistence that songs be grounded in the personal as much as if not more than the political, tells us a great deal about the difference between these mutually single-minded, era-defining artists.

Unlike Dylan, whose best work often plays as memoir, Ochs was committed to the song as editorial, ripping material directly from the
New York Times—his first LP was titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing—addressing injustice through a lens of black humour rendered more ironic still through the nasal boyishness of his vocal delivery. So long as the dream of social change through music-as-reportage seemed plausible, Ochs was on top of the world. When the world proved less capable of change than Ochs and his more idealistic peers had hoped, Ochs’ music began to recede from the charts, while Ochs himself slid into a slow downward spiral marked by alcoholism and despair over Vietnam and the deaths of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Victor Jara. He was later strangled by thieves in Africa. They spared his life but wrecked his vocal chords. He finally hung himself in his sister’s home. He was 35.

There but for Fortune brims with talking heads, including many who knew Ochs intimately, such as Joan Baez, Ed Sanders, and Ochs’ brother Michael, who served as the film’s co-producer, and others who take inspiration from Ochs’ legacy, such as Billy Bragg, Christopher Hitchens, and Sean Penn. These commentators collectively chronicle the significant episodes in Ochs’ life, while Bowser and editor Pamela Scott Arnold emphasize the political events that shaped Ochs’ art and psyche. Blessed with an immense trove of archival material, which Bowser carefully weaves in, There but for Fortune can’t be faulted with neglecting to relay the facts.

Where the film does seem to fall short is in its exploration of the truths behind the facts. Bowser, probably best known for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, is too respectful to be more precise about Ochs’ bad habits and failings as a family man. More importantly, Bowser refrains from delving below the surface of his subjects’ testimonies, from rigorously questioning why such a giant failed to secure an enduring place in the popular culture of his lifetime or maintain a posthumous renown as vibrant as many of his contemporaries. Ochs was nothing if not opinionated and daring. Ochs had a perspective, which is something you can’t really say about Bowser’s work here. Still, see the film, and be grateful to Bowser for going as far as he did to remind us of this very special talent whose contributions arguably have no equivalent in today’s music.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Another Year: All in good time

Seasons pass, the garden’s tended, visitors come and go. “Nothing changes,” sighs one of our ensemble of mostly middle-aged, middle-class Londoners, though that’s not always bad news where certain cinematic yields are concerned. Honestly, I’m not sure that any new ground is broken in writer/director Mike Leigh’s latest multi-character study, yet it somehow feels fresh anyway.
Another Year is chatty and rambling, busy yet plot-free, tender yet merciless about how life can just keep getting more unruly and incomprehensible, and, despite a number of chronically anxious, substance-abusing or otherwise depressed supporting characters—not to mention a harp-heavy score from Gary Yershon that creeps into New Ageyness—it’s also very, very funny.

Tom and Gerri (those sturdiest of Leigh vets, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a chipper geologist and warmly maternal psychologist respectively, are the film’s collective rock. Lucky to have each other, they’re not flawless people, yet each possesses that rare gift for contentment, so much so that you might find yourself wondering if, like Leigh’s recent
Happy-Go-Lucky, their story mightn’t become another cautionary tale about the tyranny of the well-adjusted. The film is built around the couple’s hosting at least four festive gatherings and a funeral. At nearly every one of these occasions Mary (Lesley Manville, mannered yet so precise) turns up, merrily envies her patient friends, gets plastered, and only gradually learns not to put the moves on their son (Oliver Maltman). Perhaps she needs someone to help, and she might just find it in an ashen widower (David Bradley) who looks like Motörhead’s Lemmy if Lemmy were a vampire. Good old Ken (Peter Wright) meanwhile may not ever learn to moderate his food intake, nor to stop two-fisting the lager, nor recover his unobstructed view of his own lap, but there’s always hope. Such things take time. Fortunately, Another Year is so pleasurable and sometimes touching that you won’t be in a hurry.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Small Town Murder Songs: This town ain't big enough

Ed Gass-Donnelly’s feature debut deposits an okey-dokey sheriff with a murky past and capacity for mayhem in the rural Mennonite community of Conestoga Lake, Ontario, whose vast prairies render every passing pedestrian vulnerable to the wrath of God. Walter (Peter Stormare) is bear-like, middle-aged, his rage bottled and sealed by an exterior that could be mistaken for timidity if you didn’t know him, the spectacle frames so outdated they’d be hip in the city, that goofy uncle moustache. If Walter were more articulate, or overtly sinister, or nursing an urge for secret refinement and solitude punctuated by violent sex,
Small Town Murder Songs’s particular thread of portentousness—squeezing each scene for tension and regularly injecting thundering music over the soundtrack, the film’s almost a mediation on portentousness—would seem heavily indebted to Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, but Gass-Donnelly is chasing something at once more diminutive, or short story-like, and more mythical. You develop this cumulative awareness of there being less to all this than is intended, the emphasis clearly more on the director’s stylistic moxie than on probing the psychic depths of its troubled protagonist. And in an industry as starved for personal style as Canada’s, this emphasis will probably work in Gass-Donnelly’s favour.

Walter attempts to find religion all over again, primarily through the love of a good, nattering, matronly waitress (Martha Plimpton). His redemption is interrupted by the discovery of a young woman’s body. The investigation leads him back to his much sexier and trashier old flame (Jill Hennessey) and has him discreetly pointing an accusatory finger at the douche bag who constitutes her current beau. What’s most intriguing about all this is the notion that just because you’ve got a vendetta doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

With conspicuous references to basic instincts and intermediary passages riddled with copious slow-motion, wailing dirges that declare “You can’t hide what you are,” and mammoth titles chiseled into the sky by the Lord reading “REPENT AND PROFESS YOUR FAITH,” you can’t exactly call Small Town Murder Songs subtle, but it’s too enamoured with allusion, repeats its flashbacks too often to retain their needed enigma, and, in short, writes a lot of cheques it can’t cash. Those titular musical refrains, all of them elegantly composed and judiciously edited (Brendan Steacy’s the shooter, Gass-Donnelly his own cutter), are clearly the bedrock of Gass-Donnelly’s conceptual gambit, but they’re so consistently overwrought that only an apocalyptic shower of fireballs could give them their due send-off.

The gleam of pretentiousness cast over much of Small Town Murder Songs never extends however to the performances. Stormare, so rarely granted this sort of role, is tremendous, seemingly never caught without a precise notion of Walter’s shifting emotional levels, and as brooding with his bulky physicality as with his face. Plimpton completely fills out her role without ever resorting to too much gesture or false nuance. She has a remarkably convincing scene where she needs to pray while thinking of the dead girl’s panties. Hennessey’s perfectly cast and groomed here, but has little to do. If her character were given more attention we might have gleaned some sense of what she and Walter were really all about, and since, as the real object of his desire, she’s finally the key to our understanding of Walter’s dark side, her absence is felt that much greater. The undernourishment of Hennessey’s role points to the central question that lingers with anyone trying to reckon with Small Town Murder Songs. It’s very hard to know if this needed a lot more to make it truly resonate, or a lot less—even at a meager 75 minutes, there are scenes that feel superfluous. Boil it down to music videos and you might find its true raison d’être. Extend and seriously deepen it and you might find a satisfying slice of Canadian gothic.

Small Town Murder Songs opens in Toronto and Edmonton this weekend.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Eagle: Fatherless son searches for a standard in a savage land

The expository titles that open
The Eagle emerge from a haze of computerized mist, a figurative fog that envelops the ancient history about to be conjectured upon. Inspired by the legend of the Ninth Spanish Legion, the words tell of how in 120 A.D. 5000 Roman soldiers journeyed into uncharted Northern Britain and vanished without a trace, along with their beloved standard, a silver eagle whose loss seems to have grieved Rome far more than that of its troops. But our story really begins 30 years later, with the arrival of centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) at a remote, dilapidated garrison not far from the dreaded northern frontier. It seems an undesirable post, but Marcus Aquila has his reasons for being there: his father led the aforementioned ill-fated, now infamous, expedition.

Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel
The Eagle of the Ninth, The Eagle may be set in Roman-occupied Britain, but its trajectory most closely resembles that of a revisionist Western, with its hero, devoted to his flag yet fundamentally an individualist of stoic integrity, traversing hostile terrain rife with primitive yet fierce aboriginal warriors in the name of some grandiose colonialist project. After an act of bravery lands Marcus Aquila a damaged knee, a medal and an honorable discharge, he hears rumours of recent Eagle sightings up in the Highlands and vows to retrieve it, with only Esca (Jamie Bell), his noble native slave, as companion and guide. So this lone ranger and his Tonto go behind enemy lines, off the map, and into the vastness of Scotland’s murky glens on what is surely a pointless quest, a journey into the heart of darkness for a hunk of metal, not even a person, though perhaps the real goal is to apprehend some obscure truth about a long-lost father and vindicate his tarnished legacy.

Reuniting Last King of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald, scripter Jeremy Brock, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, The Eagle is transporting and richly atmospheric, pulling you in on the strength of its storytelling and gorgeously rugged images, some illuminated only by flickering candles. A moonlight fight is more brutal for its gloom, as is the vision of barbecued invaders resembling rabid hippies and fighting like wild dogs, crazed with the rage of the colonized. Later on the Pict tribes are introduced, the tables turned, Marcus Aquila becomes the slave, and there’s something transfixing in seeing this hulking hero kneel before lanky warriors who decorate themselves so as to look like they literally emerged from the surrounding stone, cold sea and hardscrabble. MacDonald refrains from any fashionable indulgence in gore, but reveals a deft understanding as to how to cultivate our anticipation of violence with close-ups of sharpened spikes spinning on the sides of cartwheels, or a knife about to plunge into a knee to perform surgery without anesthetic.

Brock’s dialogue however is often dry or simply too on the nose. Donald Sutherland turns up for a nice supporting bit, and there’s a scene where he provides amusingly colourless colour commentary to the coliseum fight that introduces Esca: “Look at that.
Look at that!” But what’s spoken in The Eagle is secondary to what transpires, and the story itself is fascinating. At least for the first two-thirds. The film’s last act is disappointingly stupid, though in hindsight isn’t hard to see coming. I suppose says something about how all of us, oppressed and oppressors both, are capable of heinous acts and old soldiers never lose their fire. If only the story didn’t reward its genocidal Romans by feeding their vanity and idolatry. You can’t help but imagine the alternate version where Marcus Aquila finds the lost eagle but it’s been consigned to life as a rusty anvil or paperweight, or collecting dust in some closet where later humans will store forgotten bowling trophies and unwanted crock pots.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Haunted by these images: The Film That Changed My Life

Something happens to us when we try to come to terms with formative experience. Some of us can articulate what constitutes the turning point in our lives. Some slip into reverie. Some are forced to acknowledge that there’s nothing more ineffable than the things that set fire to our imagination. Can something that blows your mind be analyzed? Does the fact that it blows your mind not preclude the inability to do just that? These questions haunt
The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark (Chicago Review Press, $18.95). They give you some idea of what works and what doesn’t in this book of transcribed interviews conducted and edited by Robert K. Elder.

Alex Gibney

Some of the selections in
The Film That Changed My Life are genuinely surprising, such as Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce on The Godfather, or, most interestingly, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney on Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Gibney tells a nice story about his brief correspondence with Buñuel, and goes some distance toward explaining how he was influenced by Buñuel’s cryptic surrealist techniques while commenting on the intermediary walking scenes in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: “It’s like finding some random shot as a documentarian, and throwing it in there because it has some kind of power you can’t quite identify.” Elsewhere, The Last Seduction director John Dahl recalls seeing A Clockwork Orange at a drive-in in Billings, Montana. “It was the first time I paid attention to the sets,” he says, which probably tells us something about the cinema of Stanley Kubrick.

Danny Boyle

Many choices however, especially those from directors with a large and familiar body of work, are more predictable—and why wouldn’t they be? And who can blame Peter Bogdanovich if he doesn’t have anything especially fresh to say about
Citizen Kane? 8 1/2 changed Henry Jaglom’s vocation from actor to director. Richard Kelly believes that “We get closer to Brazil with each passing week.” Danny Boyle declares Apocalypse Now “a celebration of the destruction as well as a condemnation of its subject matter.” Boyle laments the loss of the sort of quixotic ambitions that could drive a film during Francis Ford Coppola’s salad days. He also claims cinema is fundamentally a medium designed for young men, which I probably tells us something about the cinema of Danny Boyle.

I wondered soemtimes if
The Film That Changed My Life mightn’t have been better as a series of magazine pieces. Some of Elder’s choices of interviewees might have seemed less puzzling in that context. (Bill Condon? Brian Hertzlinger?) It also might have forced him to be a more judicious editor. There are numerous repetitions that sound fine in conversation but in print read as mere redundancy. There’s also a lack of spontaneity in some pieces that I can only assume arises from Elder’s insistence on using same questions every time out, whether or not they go anywhere. The best interviews in here are the ones that seem to indulge tangents—that’s when Elder’s subjects, as well as Elder himself, really engage and come to life.

Guy Maddin

I’m happy to report that two of the very best interviews are with Canadians, and I take comfort in knowing that both directors in question discovered the movie that changed their life while channel-surfing late at night for glimpses of accidentally uncensored nudity (something I myself have experienced—is this a Canadian thing?). Had he never seen
L’âge d’or, Guy Maddin, a man not adverse to hyperbole, claims that he would have never picked up a camera. “It’s just a love story,” Maddin says, “every bit as surreal as a love story deserves to be.” Atom Egoyan meanwhile is extremely sharp about Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, describing its sculptural qualities, how it emphasized the friction in language and the role of the listener. He also says one thing in particular that nearly sums up the entire book: “We are never more alive, I think, as when we are trying to ascertain our relationship to something which is completely mysterious to us.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Amacord: Send in il buffone

The title of Federico Fellini’s
Amarcord (1973) derives from the Emiliano-Romagnolo dialect spoken in the Northern Italian village where the writer/director was raised. It supposedly means “I remember,” though if this is true it’s probably safe to assume that the Romagnolian memory is more heavily imbued with fantasy than the average. Episodic, bawdy, cyclical, and at every point flamboyantly exaggerated, Amarcord, newly available on Blu-ray from Criterion, is a group portrait of Italian village life during the rise of fascism, a threat that seems to have no significant effect on humble provincial matters. It’s less a narrative than a vast mural that gradually reveals itself over the course of a couple of hours. Chronologically, a year has passed by the film’s end, but you can somehow imagine all of the preceding events simply repeating themselves once the last fade-to-black closes.

Caricatures of all types inhabit Fellini’s village, as do the deformed and the purely symbolic. The men are mostly salacious while the women are fantastically voluptuous, a collective homage to the corset. Some resemble drag queens, others are the closest thing to living embodiments of Robert Crumb drawings that this world will furnish. Families talking to each other in such blustery tones you worry the elder, heavier members could go into cardiac arrest at any moment. There’s a crazy uncle who pees his pants, carries rocks in his pockets, and climbs a tree in the middle of nowhere so as to declare his melancholy horniness to a nearly unpopulated landscape. There’s a teenage boy nearly smothered by massive breasts, each of them larger than his head. There’s a dwarf nun. And of course there’s sweet, red-haired Gradisca (Magali Noël), an object of desire that just wants to be loved, and an ideal frame upon which to display Danilo Donati’s costume designs, Gradisca’s favoured outfit being a dress and beret combo of a scarlet that hums on the screen as though radioactive, a sort of sex-force, not clothing but some kind of form-fitting energy field designed to ceaselessly prompt in viewers the urge to see its wearer naked.

So Fellini’s memory/imagination has rendered the world of his childhood a series of broad comic sketches. At times you get to feeling like you’re watching
Benny Hill with millionaire production design. I confess my patience with the more cartoonish aspect of Fellini’s work, especially in the later films, those modeled on the circus and likely the source of all that’s most tiresome in the films of Terry Gilliam, has its limits. But the rewards of Fellini’s obsession with scale arrive in the inspired heights of artifice, the unabashedly fake and fragile-looking images, and the dream-like extremes of atmospheric conditions. Weather regularly turns his village into a fabulous theme park. The fog sequence is extraordinarily beautiful, as are those colossal mounds of snow that transform the village centre into a labyrinth. And because behaviour is typically so larger than life the rare moments when a character delivers a line with a straight face are that much more striking. Despite (or because of) all the fart jokes and pee jokes, nothing in Amarcord made me laugh as hard as a scene where an older patron leaves the village cinema and, when asked what she thought of the movie, looks directly at the camera and says without any inflection: “It was beautiful. I had a good cry.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Somewhere: A time and space for us

One is characterized by decadence and girlhood, the other by austerity and manhood, but both are fun and dryly funny, both remarkably tender, and both orbit a system of privilege and unapologetically acknowledge the ennui can afflict its stars. Perhaps the important difference concerns the nature of these films’ central relationships. Between making
Marie Antoinette and Somewhere Sofia Coppola had a child, and somewhere in the interim the latter became less about a male movie star whose soul has evaporated under the limelight than a father who attempts to breach the distance between he and his daughter with the utmost gentleness, as though the slightest hint of exertion might throw off the whole gambit. The hero of Somewhere almost never looks like he’s working hard, and neither does its director. That’s the charm of Coppola’s filmmaking, and it takes some kind of miserly grouch to dismiss her work for its buoyancy. Okay, miserly and impatient. Somewhere is a lovely, witty, touching film, but it’s not going anywhere fast.

It opens with Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) driving his Ferrari in high-speed circles, a closed circuit that flatly summarizes the current course of his existence, drifting between parties, press junkets and award ceremonies. He’s driving on autopilot, as is most hilariously evident in a scene where he goes to bed with a stranger and falls asleep in her vagina. He breaks his arm in a party accident, and holes up at the Chateau Marmont, where he runs into Benicio Del Toro in the lift. More for consolation than arousal, we see Johnny hire a private pole-dancing performance from blonde twins preparing for their exam. Soon afterward we see Johnny watch 11-year-old Cleo (Elle Fanning) rehearse a figure skating routine, and while there’s a detectable similarity in Johnny’s response, a calm, paternal, indiscriminate sort of encouragement, we’re never meant to confuse Johnny’s affection for seducible young women with his quietly anxious adoration for his daughter. That would be a sleazier, easier film than the one Coppola’s crafted here. What follows is simple enough—Johnny, normally a strictly short-term parent, finding himself the guardian of a tween over an extended period—yet what happens under the surface of Johnny and Elle’s time together is anything but. As father and daughter hang out and travel together, mostly in familial harmony, emotional contracts are discreetly redrawn. Something changes for both characters, though these changes are only suggested by Coppola’s use of sequence, music, and image (her shooter is the great Harris Savides).

And, of course, by the actors. Dorff is brilliantly cast. If he were an A-list celebrity his tabloid status might have interfered with the Coppola’s focus on intimate relationships, with the film world residing always in the background. More importantly, Dorff’s smiles retain something of his co-star’s adolescent lightness, while in other scenes he exhibits the weight of his years through an exhausted slouch. His comic timing’s inspired. In a bit where he gets a text message that reads, Why are you such an asshole?, it’s Dorff’s utterly nonplussed response that constitutes the scene’s punchline. Fanning meanwhile is radiant and touchingly real, natural without any self-consciousness, the ideal product of an acting clan in that she bears none of the ingratiating qualities of many child actors yet seems completely at ease before the cameras. Her role inevitably prompts us to seek parallels between Cleo’s childhood and the director’s, but I suspect Francis Ford Coppola’s life was awfully messier and more fraught with business crises than Johnny’s. My feeling is that autobiography is the film’s seasoning, not its meat.
Somewhere is finally very much in keeping with Coppola’s ongoing concerns, particularly those of Lost in Translation, with which it shares some similar turning points. But it’s also a step forward from that earlier film’s portrait of life as permanent transit. By the time we’ve reached the end of this entry into the cinema of dislocation, there’s the sense that perhaps Somewhere truly does find a place for us.